Archive for November, 2011

Beyond Regret: The Psalms in Our Worship 42

by   |  11.28.11  |  Uncategorized

The retreat from regret, the aching sorrow that crushes a spirit and snuffs out the first flicker of hope and goodness, begins with repentance.  Repentance allows us to cast away shame by acknowledging it and refusing to give it control over our lives, a control exercised in the quiet places in which we hide ourselves from others.  Far from being a humiliation, repentance is the first step to exaltation.  It is the end of humiliation because it is the first and greatest exercise of courage to which we can aspire.

Psalm 51 shows a profound knowledge of the power of repentance.  The earliest commentator on the psalm, the person who added the superscription to it, thought it so powerful that it could serve in the story of the most dramatic moral failure of a righteous person that he knew about: David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah.  The psalm itself is later than David’s time and must originally have served much broader purposes.  There’s nothing in it unique to the sins of the flesh or of violence; anyone’s sin, if deep enough, can find its release in this psalm.  In fact, the last few verses seem to imply a date after the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar and before the rebuilding of the walls by Nehemiah.

“Be gracious to me, O Elohim, in light of your loyalty; erase my iniquities in view of your abundant mercies…. For I know my iniquities, and my sin is always before me.”  With this opening, the psalmist begins to acknowledge the reality of sin (without naming it, since this prayer can apply to anyone!) and its public nature.  It is not hidden from the one praying or the One prayed to.  There is no use pretending anymore.

But how public is it?  Verses 4 ff. (6 ff. in Hebrew) seem susceptible to multiple interpretations.  Does “against you only have I sinned” mean that the sin is secret (say, a plot not yet carried out, or sorcery, or something like that) or is this a case of hyperbole?  The Bible itself, in distinction from some of its readers in church, never seems to think that sin concerns only God and the individual.  Sin is communal; it involves others.  And it would be illogical and morally dubious — obscene, really — to argue that acts of injustice or betrayal (say, failure to honor parents, or lying in court, or stealing, or murder, or adultery — just to pick up on the Ten Commandments) offend only God and not other human beings.  Obviously, sins of this sort cannot literally be only against God.  So we do well simply to say that sin involves God because people in a covenant with God (as well as with each other) betray the relationship implied by covenant when they do evil.

In the text itself, the contrast is between divine purity and goodness, on one side, and human iniquity, on the other.  The psalmist underscores the dramatic nature of the contrast by saying, “Yes, I was delivered in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  A great deal of very questionable stuff has been written about this verse, as it has played its role in the unfortunate case made for hereditary sin and irremediable human corruption made over the centuries.  Yet such ideas are very alien to the world of the Old Testament, which thinks that humans both can and should do good before God.  In truth, it makes little sense to repent of sin if you can’t really repent of it!  Since the psalm is poetry, it makes much more sense to read the line as, again, hyperbole.  Perhaps we could paraphrase it this way: “We humans are a really messed up species, aren’t we?  Our history is full of such examples, and so is my individual life.”

The psalm moves from confession to appeal.  Images of cleansing appear over and over in the second half of the psalm, shifting then to ideas of singing (songs of joy rather than of sorrow), and then in turn to the promise to teach God’s ways of forgiveness to sinners, presumably so that they too can experience those very ways. More »

How Religious is God? Not Very! The Psalms in Our Worship 41

by   |  11.15.11  |  Uncategorized

With this post, we reach a point 1/3 of the way through the Psalter.  And a lovely point it is.

Psalm 50 raises a question previously unasked in the Psalter, at least in precisely this way: what does God want from human beings?  If we remember that ancient people saw gift-giving as a way of building a relationship, with the giving of lavish gifts creating a sort of dependency or relational asymmetry, then we recognize that the question is not an idle one.  To give a gift to God is to have a relationship with God, at least as the Bible understands it.  So what sort of gift is appropriate?

The psalm considers the question from several angles.  Verses 1-6 open with a description of “El Elohim Yahweh” descending from heaven to earth in splendor.  The very heavens declare the deity’s majestic righteousness and surpassing qualities as the judge of all the earth (v. 6).   Thus the God with whom the psalmist seeks a relationship is the same God who brings justice to the world, surely a magnificent gift.

Next, verses 7-15 offer a divine oracle in which this God declines sacrifice as an appropriate gift because He owns all the creatures in the world (you can’t give something to the one who already owns it!) and because a deity does not need to eat flesh and drink blood in any case.  (Thus the psalm rejects a simplistic view of sacrifice that sees it as an act of feeding the deity.)  This section puts the relationship on a different footing than one of strict reciprocity: “Thanksgiving is a sacrifice to Elohim, and keeping your promises is a peace offering to the Most High.  ‘Call on me in a day of trouble; I will rescue you and you will honor me’.”  Weaving together oracle (v. 15) and comment on divine oracle (v. 14), the psalmist recasts the whole question.  God’s job is to save the contrite in heart, and our job is to be grateful.  Barbecue is secondary.  Let me come back to this point in a moment.

The psalm next moves to a criticism of the evildoer, i.e., the one who does not have a relationship with God.  Verses 16-21 describe people who say the right things — they look pious and obedient — but do not say the main thing.  They are people who do not truly practice the disciplines of wisdom (verse 17’s word musar, a favorite word in Proverbs to describe the life lived wisely).  Their greatest mistake lies in assuming that God is like them, just a wearer of masks and not a person of integrity.  They were mistaken, and fatally so.

The psalm ends with a summary of its position: live a grateful life.  “The one sacrificing thanksgiving honors me; he will make the way where I will show him God’s salvation.”  (The Hebrew text is actually a bit defective, but this seems to be the sense of it.)  The gift that will create a meaningful, positive, beneficial relationship with God is one rooted in human gratitude, and thus in human awareness of the truth of our dependency on God. More »